An interview with innovative vibraphonist Stefon Harris, who appears at Seattle's Jazz Alley Oct. 13-14.
Judging a book solely by its cover is never a wise strategy, but in the case of vibraphonist Stefon Harris, the artwork adorning his latest CD, “Urbanus,” offers a good deal of insight into his creative identity.
On his seventh album for Blue Note, Harris and his quintet Blackout loom over a cubist cityscape, masters of their musical domain. Laced with contemporary beats such as funk, go-go and hip-hop as well as straight-ahead swing, “Urbanus” often features saxophonist Casey Benjamin on vocoder and pianist Marc Cary on Fender Rhodes and keyboards, creating bustling electroacoustic textures.
“The title is Latin for urban, and it looks like ‘urban us,’ which is where we’re coming from,” says Harris, 36, who opens a two-night run with Blackout at Jazz Alley on Tuesday (with Sullivan Fortner Jr. rather than Cary on keyboards). “We’re all from urban environments, and if you’re going to be authentic, your background is going to come out.”
Not every track on “Urbanus” is a ringing success. With its rapidly shifting moods, the album sometimes feels overstuffed with ideas. But Harris knows that jazz depends upon working bands to evolve, rather than temporary all-star aggregations. Built upon the volatile rhythm-section tandem of bassist Ben Williams and drummer Terreon Gully, Blackout serves as the vibraphonist’s loyal posse, drawing out his concepts while offering new directions for exploration.
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“It’s my band, but I’m not telling everyone what to do,” Harris says.
“I’m just one member of this ensemble. There are things that occurred on that album that I disagree with, and I’m OK with that. If you keep an ensemble open, it goes far beyond what I could do on my own.”
With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Manhattan School of Music, Harris is also steeped in the European classical tradition. He’s recorded Tchaikovsky, Bach and Rachmaninov with the Classical Jazz Quartet, an all-star band featuring pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lewis Nash. When it comes to jazz, Harris sees “traditionalism” as a trap best avoided by staying true to his urban identity.
“There’s a misperception about the tradition of jazz when people think it’s bebop and post-bop,” Harris says, referring to the movements that came to define straight-ahead jazz in the decades after World War II.
“That’s not traditional jazz, that’s what jazz was. The tradition is music that’s spontaneous and in tune with the times. What we’re doing is in the tradition of jazz.”
Andrew Gilbert: firstname.lastname@example.org